The Richardson Review

We End in Joy: Memoirs of a First Daughter by Angela Fordice Jordan

Story Tom & Emma Richardson

Twelve years after leaving the Governor’s office and eight years after his death, Kirk Fordice lives on in the annals of Mississippi politics and — for better or worse — in the memories of most Mississippians. A businessman rather than a career politician, Fordice became the first Republican governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction, and during his two terms in office (1992-2000), Mississippi enjoyed a share of the nation’s economic prosperity. While in office, though, Fordice famously offended and alienated many: At a governors’ conference, he declared the United States “a Christian nation,” refusing to amend his remarks to “Judeo-Christian”; he opposed pay increases for public schoolteachers; and — as cartoonist Marshall Ramsay recalls in his Introduction to We End in Joy — he “called out” President Bill Clinton for his Monica Lewinsky “incident” not long before Fordice himself was spotted “coming off a plane from Paris with his high school sweetheart.” A Mississippi state representative declared Governor Fordice “an equal opportunity antagonizer,” and a staff member remarked, “You can always tell when someone is part of the Fordice staff by the big chunk missing from their ass.”

The counterpoint to rough-as-a-cob Fordice was, of course, First Lady Pat Fordice, who lives on, too, in the memories of Mississippians for her beauty and poise, her elegance and gentility — and for her steely dignity and grace in the midst of the public humiliation meted out by her husband. For example, Governor Fordice announced from his office that he and the First Lady were divorcing — without having told the First Lady beforehand — and the First Lady subsequently announced that, in fact, there would be no divorce. The couple did divorce after Fordice left office, but the First Lady attended the Governor at his bedside when he succumbed to leukemia in 2004, three years before her own death from cancer in 2007.

We End in Joy: Memoirs of a First Daughter is a musing about her parents by Angela Fordice Jordan, the Fordices’ oldest child (35 at the time of her father’s first inauguration) and only daughter (There are three Fordice sons.). It is also a work of “self writing” in which Jordan reflects on her losses and her growth, as well as her struggle to achieve a viable “selfhood” apart from being someone’s daughter, sister, wife and mother. She acknowledges her privileged family position and admits to being her father’s favorite. Nevertheless, she reflects on troubling aspects of her father, describing him in his youth as a “prankster,” a “risk taker,” a “law breaker” — but a “golden boy” to his own mother and father.  She describes him as “awkward” and “emotionally stunted”: As a child he cut off the tails of his grandmother’s kittens by slamming a door on them. Jordan hints at a continued capacity for violence when she admits that after her father’s death she and her brothers “found 13 concealed weapons in his house and car, aside from the hunting weapons that were on display in a locked case.” She is troubled by the memory of her father’s racist language, recounting her own daughters’ questioning, “Why does Chief say the N-word?” — which caused her father to make an effort to curb his speech, at least in front of his grandchildren.

As no doubt most children want to believe, Jordan writes that her parents did love each other, that their 44-year marriage had begun in love and passion but that her father “lacked the self-possession and confidence” of her mother who had “a quiet power, a confident knowing.”

About her own life, Jordan asserts that “nothing much” was expected of her “beyond marrying well.” She stops short of blaming her mother for that but recounts how she rebelled against her mother’s “Rules of Genteel Womanhood” that included, “Don’t draw attention to yourself. Always look your best. A lady doesn’t tell everything she knows. Smoke if you must, but never standing up. Marry someone who appreciates fine things and can give them to you.” Jordan grapples with big issues — “Death, marriage, birth, betrayal, loss, joy” — and is able in the end to affirm, “What a complex and glorious stew is served up in this life!”

(University Press of Mississippi; 192 pp.; $25.00)

EMMA:  I am thoroughly intrigued by We End in Joy — of course I’m the person who clogs up the check-out line at the grocery story reading as much as I can of People magazine before the cart behind me nudges me forward. I’m interested — truth be known — in the lives of the famous, especially in what goes on behind closed doors. Angela Fordice Jordan, then, satisfies this reader’s curiosity with some tantalizing details about the former First Couple (those nude late-night swims in the family pool in Vicksburg) and about Mrs. Fordice’s secret for giving “a little height” to the crown of a woman’s hair (since every woman looks better “with a little height around her face”). Beyond that, though, Jordan involves the reader in the struggles and joys of her own life and in the lives of her parents. She describes the deathbeds of both her father and her mother, reminding the reader of the universality of grief at the death of parents, the parting of the “thin veil” between life and death. I wept for all of them.

TOM: I hate People magazine (and breakfast television and talk shows). I didn’t care for Governor Fordice either. Nevertheless, Angela Fordice Jordan’s story interests me — in part because of what it reveals about the private lives and characters of the former Governor and First Lady, but largely because she tells her own story (although I would have preferred to have had it told in a more consistently engaging prose style). She struggles with her father’s ideologies (she “still is not a Republican”) and her mother’s commitment to image, and she makes a sympathetic character as she recounts the special challenges of trying to maintain an independent identity in the midst of the public world of politics and its controversies. Especially moving, though, is the account of the days leading up to her mother’s death. We quickly forget the former First Lady’s public persona as we connect with a dying mother and her loving daughter. It is the kind of story that many of us reading We End in Joy could have told. No doubt readers will go to this book for a glimpse at the private lives of these public figures, but whether they like it or not, they will also find there a little bit of themselves.